The Guptas, The New Age and government: An inconvenient truth
After the State of the Nation address in two weeks, President Jacob Zuma’s first appointment will be a business breakfast briefing arranged by The New Age. Before any other media interview or engagement regarding the most important speech of the year, the president will appear at an event arranged by the paper owned by his good friends, the unavoidable Gupta family. You have to pay R695 to be among the privileged few at this event. The New Age appears to have become the happy gatekeeper to the Zuma Cabinet, while a R429-million-a-year government communications system can’t do its work. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
The New Age and its owners claim they have a fantastic business model which allows them and all their partners to enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship. The Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille claims the paper has received 77% of its advertising revenue from government and that since 2010, R64.6 million has been channelled to TNA Media in the form of advertising and revenue. The revelations that state-owned companies such as Telkom, Transnet and Eskom have paid about R25 million towards business breakfasts hosted by The New Age have set off the whirl of allegations that suggest something untoward is going on.
Of course it smells fishy. When the paper was first launched with its promise of a “positive” outlook on South Africa, there were suspicions as to why the Gupta family was willing to throw money at a business which was bound to lose money and which they claimed they were not looking to for profits. But that was before their gung-ho approach and influential political network was evident. Over the past five years, the Gupta brothers have developed a very close relationship with President Jacob Zuma, whom they befriended just as he began his rise to power.
Since then, their modus operandi has rubbed many people – from Cabinet ministers to senior government officials – up the wrong way. The Gupta brothers have proved to be shrewd businessmen who use their political connections and money to advance their business interests in a way that most others would balk at. They have been generous with the Zuma family and they use their relationship with the president, his wives and his children as leverage to open doors in government and the business sector.
There are several anecdotal tales of officials and even ministers being summoned to meetings with the Guptas, where they are given instructions to favour their businesses, including The New Age. Government communicators tell how they have been strong-armed into buying advertisements and arranging sponsorships by executives at The New Age. If they resist, the Gupta brothers intervene and their political principals are leaned on to make sure they cooperate.
But few people are willing to take on the Guptas and put the accusations on record, fearing their proximity to power and their influence over political heavyweights. As a result, the allegations of shady dealings by the Gupta family and their associates remain in the realm of speculation – until perhaps they get caught in the act.
But the Guptas are in the business of making money, and if they have found an “innovative” way of making money through their political friends, why would they stop it just because others think it smells really, really bad?
The problem is the impact of the neat arrangement between The New Age and state departments on government communications. The business briefings by members of Cabinet, hosted by the paper and broadcast live on the SABC’s Morning Live programme, appears to be the major channel through which government departments now communicate their work.
Instead of arranging their own media conferences, interviews, interactive sessions with constituencies or public meetings, the presidency and ministries now opt for The New Age business breakfasts to interface with the South African public. While media conferences and interviews can be arranged free of charge, the departments prefer to pay The New Age large sums of money to do so and to buy seats at their own events.
On Wednesday, The Star revealed that Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane paid close to R700,000 for one breakfast briefing last year. The premier’s office was also invoiced for 500 guests at R801.78 per head, totalling R400,890; and four front-page advertisements at R44,070 each, amounting to R176,280, the paper reported. In addition, Transnet paid R1 million to sponsor that briefing.
Another demonstration of the unpalatable arrangement is the post-State of the Nation business breakfast to be held in Cape Town on 15 February. The New Age is selling access to Zuma, to listen to him explain his speech and answer questions, for R695 (excluding VAT). Of course, nobody should have to pay to listen to Zuma or ask him questions about his speech at the Opening of Parliament. That is his job, which he has taken an oath to perform and for which he gets paid a substantial salary. Zuma therefore has no business participating in a moneymaking scheme for his friends, which allows a select few people to have access to him. The people of South Africa pay his salary and he should be answering their questions, free of charge.
Government, including the president, has a constitutional obligation to communicate the work that it does with the South African citizenry. This is the purpose of the Government Communications and information System (GCIS) whose infrastructure and work extends over national, provincial and local government. The GCIS budget for the 2012/13-year is R429 million, no small change. With that budget, GCIS can arrange its own breakfast briefings and parade out the president and members of Cabinet in the same way The New Age does, but without people having to pay to see and hear them.
The draw card for The New Age briefings appears to be the live coverage on national television. It is not known why GCIS, individual ministries or the presidency cannot secure live SABC coverage for their own briefings, or if they have even tried.
The SABC’s acting chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, told Talk Radio 702 on Wednesday that the public broadcaster was happy with the arrangement because The New Age was able to secure the participation of “newsmakers” who are ordinarily difficult to get for interviews. For some reason, there appears to be a chasm between government and the SABC which prevents them from securing a direct relationship without The New Age acting as the go-to PR entity.
The reach and impact of The New Age breakfast briefings have never been tested, and therefore whether it is an effective method of communicating for government is not known. Why it is a preferred method to government communicators arranging their own briefings still has to be explained. It could be yet another case of government officials farming out their work to outside organisations, as they do with consultants, because they are either incapable or unwilling to do it themselves.
Or it could because they are forced to participate in this “politicians for hire” scheme by people above their heads.
Amid the raging storm between The New Age and the DA, the ANC issued a statement with an effusive defence of the newspaper and its arrangement with government and the SABC.
“The New Age-SABC breakfast sessions are an innovative and important private initiative in strengthening our democracy by ensuring an informed citizenry,” ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said.
On Thursday, the presidency also fired off a statement to refute allegations that government advertising is skewed in favour of The New Age newspaper and to dismiss a call by Zille for a judicial commission of inquiry into the paper’s funding. The presidency said that according to GCIS’s bulk media buying spend, The New Age “enjoys less advertising as compared to other groups of newspapers”.
The statement however does not provide the figures for direct advertising by departments, provinces, municipalities and state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that do not buy media space in bulk through GCIS. This means that the presidency has conveniently excluded what departments and SOEs have been paying towards The New Age business breakfast briefings.
The ANC and the presidency both seem to miss in their statements that it is their duty to ensure that there is an “informed citizenry”, not The New Age’s. The New Age is making millions for playing the role of the government communications machinery, while the Guptas continue to control politicians on puppet strings.
South African citizens are entitled to receive information and ask questions of their elected representatives free of charge, and not have gatekeepers controlling access to them at inflated prices. Government’s arrangement with The New Age has turned the president and his Cabinet into a band of political performers, where a fee is charged to see them.
This needs to stop. Government needs to pull the plug on this arrangement and get GCIS to perform its mandate properly. South Africa’s elected representatives need to get out of their ivory towers and start talking directly to the people who elected them and who pay their salaries. If they do not see the problem with being sold like political commodities, they do not deserve the positions they hold. DM
Photo: South Africa's President Jacob Zuma gestures during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos January 23, 2013. (REUTERS/Pascal Lauener)